One reader of my post on San Francisco’s so-called “Happy Meal ban” made an interesting comment, that if parents would just say “no,” there’d be no need for such a ban. (For the record, I completely agree.) He also noted that the government stepping in to tell people what to do when they can’t make good decisions is “fascism.” Leaving aside the use of “fascism” (one of those words, like “socialism,” that gets thrown around a lot, but tends to distort and/or destroy thoughtful discussion, given how loaded the term is, and how many different meanings people assign to it), he’s raising an important question (one I’ve pondered a lot over the last few years, particularly in light in the political divide in the U.S.): What IS the proper role for government? When should government step in, and when should it leave things alone?
I suspect most people would agree that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of a square with fascism, communism, anarchy, and, for lack of a better term, a completely free-market/libertarian system (government doing nothing more than defense/criminal justice) on each corner. (The black-masked folks who advocate anarchy ought to try living in Somalia: I don’t think anarchy is working out too well for most people there.) Call it “liberal democracy” or, if you’d prefer, “market democracy.” But within that square is a lot of variation.
Take the question of telling people what to eat. Why should the government be involved in that? Think about all the different ways, even in the U.S. with its relatively more market-based system, that government actions affect what we eat. It subsidizes many agricultural products, such as corn, with one result that products are loaded with useless calories in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. It creates nutritional guidelines. It tests foods to make sure they’re safe. It regulates how products are advertised.
Should it be doing any of these things, or should it be left entirely to individual choice? Or consider seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws. Why do we have these? Shouldn’t people just make the appropriate decisions and have to live with the consequences? Rather than creating and enforcing laws, maybe it’d be easier if we just said, “Look: you’re free to ride without a helmet, or drive without a seatbelt, but here’s the deal: if you have an accident, you’re on your own. You won’t get a dime of government money. Your insurance company is completely off the hook. And you won’t have a single legal recourse. If your family doesn’t have enough money for your care, then sorry. It’s been nice knowing you.” I suspect most people would find that harsh (although seatbelt and helmet usage rates would likely skyrocket). And even those who might support that approach theoretically might feel differently in practice observing families trying to grapple with the consequences.
That’s an extreme example so let’s return to the food issue. What would happen if government made no attempt to influence people’s nutritional habits? There could be some good consequences if they began by removing subsidies for food (in spite of the image of farm subsidies going to family farmers, the vast majority go to large agribusinesses, and we could have a big impact on health by lowering support for the unhealthy calories in high fructose corn syrup), but if the government isn’t supporting its citizens by providing neutral information (questionable how neutral it is now with the various interest groups leaning on civil servants) on nutrition, or by taking a more activist role to enforce healthy choices, can individuals get the information they need to make informed choices? Can individuals on their own counterbalance the strength of large companies in the market (companies that spend billions of dollars to advertise, manipulate, and exploit any advantage to sell more)?
And at the end of the day, what are the consequences of the behavior the government (in this case the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) are trying to change? In this case, we’re looking at the well documented increase in obesity, and lifestyle-induced diabetes, all pointing to a longer term increase in health care costs, which, under our current system, we’ll all bear, either as taxpayers or members of health insurance plans. If people won’t say “no,” when should government step in?
Categories: Random thoughts